A Song of Open Space

‘ there is no square mile of earth’s inhabitable surface that is not beautiful in its own way, if we men will only abstain from wilfully destroying that beauty’ William Morris. 1884

We tell ourselves, when out in Epping Forest, or on Walthamstow or Hackney Marshes, that we are walking in wild, ancient places. That these woods and meadows have resisted the inevitable push of London to expand its boundaries. That somehow this wilderness has survived where numerous hamlets and villages have not – they after all are only remembered in the names of underground stations or the handy estate agent speak which gives us ‘urban villages’.

It’s nonsense of course. Epping Forest and the Lee Valley Park are as closely managed and curated as the parks of central London and other urban areas. And that’s nothing new. My fantasies of intrepid hunting expeditions in Epping Forest were somewhat shattered by the discovery that the Queen Elizabeth hunting lodge began life as a platform where the hunting party could stand in the dry and shoot at the carefully managed herd as they were driven into easy reach. Every meadow of course has to be mown and pollarding and coppicing are forestry techniques used for many centuries to tame the forest, to make it work for us, to make it yield the maximum possible for the least amount of human effort.

So these have not been untamed landscapes for centuries, and their relationship with the city and its inhabitants is complex. Perhaps these green spaces only survive at all because past generations of Londoners realised that left unchecked London would inevitably swallow up every copse and clearing.

Three pillars of legislation theoretically protect the fragile balance that keeps our part of London so special. The Epping Forest act of 1878 placed the Forest under the stewardship of the City of London Corporation who “shall at all times keep Epping Forest unenclosed and unbuilt on as an open space for the recreation and enjoyment of the people’; The Lee Valley regional parks authority was formed in 1967 to manage the Lee Valley, including parts of Hackney and Walthamstow marshes, and other parts of the marshes are designated as Metropolitan Open Land – a designation intended to protect areas of landscape, recreation, nature conservation and scientific interest’.

So that’s alright then. Previous generations have realised the value of these special places on the edge of London and ensured that they are preserved for the foreseeable future. They should not be susceptible to the short term vagaries of economic crises, or to the commercialism of multinational companies. London can be held back and we will always be able to escape into our green spaces.

But when a 15m high and 46m wide advertising hoarding appears on the Hackney Marshes centre, or when ‘the bikers tea hut’ is put out to tender and the prospect of Starbucks Epping Forest becomes a real one, or when a new changing facility and accompanying car park is proposed for the marshes we are reminded that this balance is a very fine one.

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We remember that after radio one’s big weekend on hackney marshes many of the football pitches were unusable for the whole season. That following the removal of a temporary Olympic basketball facility on Walthamstow marshes flooding became an issue due to failure to reinstate the land properly and the installation of a rubber sheet under the top soil. We remember those who fought for the common land which is now the Olympic park and perhaps invoke the spirit of William Morris in making our voices known , in scrutinising and challenging proposals which go beyond the spirit of that legislation and exceed the powers invested in the land’s temporary custodians.

Save Lee Marshes

Xylonite Arts – An arts space for Highams Park

This evening sees the launch of Xylonite Arts. Surely the first public arts space to appear in Highams Park for a while, and perhaps another sign that this area has reached the critical mass needed to sustain small, creative and quirky businesses.

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Xylonite arts at 12 Winchester Road will host small scale exhibitions, a permanent selection of carefully curated vintage pieces and works from local artists, and a variety of workshops and participatory sessions. It’s the brainchild of Lili Spain, a local curator and performance artist who brings a wealth of arts and business experience to this new venture. If the crowd at this evening’s opening is anything to go it will provide something unique to the area which fills the demand for a creative space on our doorstep.

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There’s certainly a wealth of local talent to draw on. xylonite arts opens with a secret sale of one off postcards designed mostly by local artists, although Lili has drawn on her wide network to persuade one or international names to contribute too. Choosing a piece to buy was quite a decision, but I’m delighted to have added an original work to my walls this evening- get down to 12 Winchester Road this week while the show’s still on!

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When a plan comes together

Something interesting is happening in Highams Park. This corner of Waltham Forest – the bit between Walthamstow and Chingford-  suddenly seems to be punching above its weight. When, last summer,  the local authority introduced a ‘place brand’, drawing attention to Waltham Forest’s four ‘most recognisable’ areas (Chingford, Walthamstow, Leyton, and Leytonstone), social media were soon alive with aggrieved comments from people who felt their area was equally deserving of being highlighted. Last July’s Highams Park Day – a fixture in the area for several years, seemed to take this community festival to another level, with stalls from local artists and craftspeople joining the line up for the first time. A few weeks ago, with memories of summer holidays rapidly fading, several hundred people spent a beautiful Indian Summer’s Sunday afternoon in the Highams Park for the first Picnic in the Park, and were entertained by a Jazz trio, welly wanging competition, a treasure hunt, and other family friendly entertainments.

 
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Art from the park – Highams Park Day 2014

I’m not suggesting that this sort of community spirit wasn’t present before, but it certainly feels as though it has stepped up a gear this year. And there is a reason. Several times a week – in venues across the area – upstairs in the county arms, in the newly refurbished Royal Oak, or in one of the many independent cafes – groups of local residents can be found deep in conversation, poring over lists of ideas and actions. These ‘topic working groups’ are working on ideas submitted for the first Highams Park Local Area Plan. ‘The Plan’ will be the formal outcome of the Highams Park Planning Group, which has now been recognised by the Local Authority, and is putting into practice the principles of 2012s Localism Act to give local communities the opportunity to influence the decision making which affects the future of their areas. This process is well underway, and the final plan should see local people’s views on planning decisions having much more weight in the future.

The content of the formal plan, and the impact it has on local authority decisions remains to be seen, but we are already beginning to see what may prove to be the most positive impacts of this project. Through wide and inclusive consultation, and the opportunity for anybody to be involved in the working groups, people are talking to each other. When people talk to each other, things start to happen, people make connections, and start to work together to make positive changes for their area. There are Topic Working Groups looking at everything from Heritage, Sports and Leisure, Shops and Retail and Transport, and I am sure they will all be making major contributions to the formal plan as well as implementing things that can be achieved in the more immediate term. I’ve been sitting on the Arts and Culture Group – there’s exciting things on the horizon, some of which will need major investment or strategic input, but already group members have started the monthly Highams Park Live nights, put together the ‘Art from the Park Stall’ at Highams Park Day, initiated the Little free Libraries for Highams Park project and much more besides. I’ll try to kickstart this blog at this exciting time to keep a record of all these projects, as well as the more general developments that the Local Area Plan brings to our special community on the edge of London.

To find out more about the Highams Park Planning Group and its topic working groups see: http://highamsparkplan.org/

 

ARC – Highams Park Plan Arts and Culture Topic Working Group – Facebook Page

A brief summary of the Localism Act: 
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Scientifically speaking…..

Two really interesting papers have been published in the last couple of weeks which have really chimed with me, and they have happened to come at a time when my own work is evolving to encompass many of the issues raised, and will perhaps allow me to explore these issues further. Firstly, Counting What Counts, published by Nesta, and written by Anthony Lilley and Professor Paul Moore makes a convincing argument that the arts and cultural sector is neither properly collecting or making good use of data which could help us to understand and increase the social and cultural impact of our work – and importantly could enable us to to unarguably demonstrate the results achieved through the investment of not insignificant amounts of public money.

This I think is really important to all of us working in arts education and the participatory arts sector. Everyone involved in this sort of work has stories about how engaging with the arts has ‘changed lives’. This is sometimes presented in the rhetoric of the evangelist in efforts to get across just how important our work is – only last week I attended a presentation in which colleagues who deliver an inspirational arts education programme in the States talked of ‘rescuing people’ through music. I don’t doubt any of these stories, or the essence of the many evaluation reports I see which assert that arts programmes have had effects on people’s lives which extend way beyond developing their artistic skills. We use reports and evidence like this to make the case for funding and investment in our work, and we are often required to produce them by funders to show the return we are delivering on their investment. And of course it is vital that we do hold ourselves to account, when we are usually spending public funds or other people’s money. I may write another time about the way we do this, the sophisticated models that we do have in place, and we do have many – from extensive quantitative data collection and analysis, to those individual and often inspiring case studies.

However, amongst the issues raised by the Counting what Counts is the fact that this so often happens in isolation. We don’t have mechanisms or infrastructure in place to look at the really big picture – the ‘Big Data’ which has the potential to really change practice and influence at the highest level. The other primary issue is related to what we do collect and why, and the fact that it is, as mentioned above, so often seen as the way of justifying our work and existence, and not as a fundamental tool which we can use to inform and shape decision making.

In recent months a combination of things, some work related, have led to me paying more attention to science stories in the news. Another thought I had, whilst reading this paper was how many arts project evaluations are actually subjected to the rigorous standards that any scientific study would be before being published and accepted by the scientific community. I am sure it happens and that there are pockets of good practice, but there is a strong case to be made for an arts education resource and training provision which helps organisations with areas such as statistical analysis. How often has it been demonstrated that the effectiveness of an arts project in achieving social impact is statistically significant? – I’d be really interested in any examples of such evaluations. There is also a case to be made for a peer review system as is standard for publication of all scientific papers.

With the Counting What Counts report still very much on my mind, I was really excited to read that Dr Ben Goldacre had written a paper advocating for use of random controlled trials in educational contexts, and, again for the building of an infrastructure echoing the now well established mechanisms that exist in the medical world. The paper speaks for itself and can be read here. If the arts education world were to take some of these points on board we could really add weight to those inspirational case studies and be in a position to make scientifically proven arguments about the effectiveness of our work in schools, communities and other contexts in addressing social issues and genuinely making the world a better place.

This as ever will take time, but I’d urge anyone who has the opportunity to do research and evaluation around their work with the arts to think as scientifically as they can, and I hope that the Arts Council and other major bodies take both these pieces of work seriously and are able to help the sector build the infrastructure and develop the skills which will be required for the realisation of the potential impact of these pieces of work.

After the ball is over

I’m fairly sure it’s not actually over yet, but for many of us in the arts world the beginning of the London Olympics came as something as a relief as wall to wall sport took over from one of largest and most intensive arts festivals we’d ever delivered. Officially lasting four years, but not really gearing up until the beginning of this July, with festival 2012, the Cultural Olympiad delivered extraordinary moments, a few disappointments and an intensity to rival the sporting event which has picked up the baton this week.

There is a big danger that after the games and the summer break, we will start the new season both with something of a hangover and severe withdrawal symptoms. We’d been planning for this summer for so long, pushed major projects into this key period, committed and raised substantial sums of money for some truly extraordinary moments that what we’ve just produced seems like a virtually impossible act to follow. It is unlikely that in the foreseeable future we’ll ever again be able to stage anything as ambitious as ten of Pina Bausch’s extraordinary works in the space of a month, or revive Philip Glass’s epic Einstein on the Beach, or bring companies from across the world to the UK to perform the complete works of Shakespeare in their own languages, or take over five sites on the banks of the Thames for the biggest free world music festival we’ve ever seen. It seems likely that we’ll enter a period where arts organisations need to play it safe, revive bankable hits, reduce risk and keep costs down. I’m sure along the way there will be standout new productions, and emerging talent to get excited about, but I don’t doubt that anyone who has been around this festival will acknowledge that it was genuinely a once in a lifetime event.

Nonetheless I see a massive opportunity in the aftermath of all this. Across this festival, and in the last week alone, we have seen some high profile demonstrations of the role the arts can play in society, and people who might not previously have thought the arts have a relevant and useful role to play in their lives have been inspired and directly involved. Most obviously, Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony seems to have succeeded in pleasing at least most of the people most of the time, and showed how a big artistic statement can increase awareness of shared values, culture and collective memories to bring large groups of people together. Earlier that day, Martin Creed’s All the Bells did exactly the same thing across the country, with a much simpler (and cheaper), but effective work of art. Within festival 2012 the bouncy inflatable stonehenge did the same job, with added value for fans of Spinal Tap, and, as I write, the enormous sculpture Godiva Awakes is being towed towards Walthamstow by 100 volunteer cyclists where she will be met by a celebration which will bring people from across our community together.

This power to contextualise, transform, unite and inspire any group of people, in any setting, across any boundaries which may be in the way, is one which is almost unique to artists, and one which can be exercised anywhere, anytime, without budgets of Olympian proportions. Those of us trying to follow the biggest artistic statements we are ever likely to see could do well to harness this power, to nurture and support the artists who realise this potential, and to build sustained relationships with those around us who could be directly impacted and involved. The good news is that this is happening across those organisations whose plans I am privy too, and I am sure elsewhere too. That certainly helps me shake of the hangover and look forward to planning a very different type of party.

It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.

In his keynote speech at the Royal Philharmonic Society awards, the people’s conductor Gareth Malone, said ‘I think that classical music is better than the rest. It’s better than folk, it’s better than drum and bass, it’s better than rap.” Tempted though I was to blog vehemently about that at the time, I didn’t. Surrounded by the entire classical music industry, after a good meal and wine, it’s easy enough for such things to slip out. I think that Gareth in all probability would say, in a different context, that there is good and bad music of all types, and that what is good in one context can be entirely wrong in another. Certainly to my mind one of his many gifts is choosing appropriate, and usually ‘good’ music to encourage the people he is working with to take their first tentative steps as musicians. I would be surprised if he were to follow through on his statement and only ever use Western Classical music when working with his choirs, be they of young people, military wives or any other background.

So, I’ve long argued that good music is good music, and my own musical life has reflected this. As someone passionate about music education, and convinced that making music can empower and enfranchise people, bring out undiscovered personal qualities and develop the skills needed for success in any walk of life, I’ve always been unconcerned about what the music that does this should be. There’s not something magic about playing a Beethoven Symphony – in some contexts it will indeed be playing in an orchestra, in others a band in a mates garage, a folk club session or a freeform jazz improvisation. The key thing is it has to be as good as it can be – it’s the commitment and dedication, blood, sweat and tears that it takes to do it well which will truly develop the elusive ‘transferable skills’ and enable individuals to translate musical participation into empowerment. The challenge of those of us setting up and leading music education activity is to ensure the pleasure and satisfaction outweighs the pain caused by the hard work.

On Midsummer’s day, a week long celebration of one of the most extraordinary cultural institutions began in Stirling. I am not going to add much to the many descriptions of El Sistema, Sistema Scotland, or England’s In Harmony programme here, but readers seeking background on this may well want to start with this this Guardian piece and accompanying video. I shared the open air performance in Raploch through BBC4s broadcast. It was very much a display of the commitment, dedication, selflessness, teamwork and sharing that first convinced conductor Jose Antonio Abreu, and later Edinburgh’s former bishop Richard Holloway, that the orchestra was a model which could transform communities. The concert was an extraordinary, and potentially life changing moment for the performers and audience alike.

However I was a little troubled to find a tiny Gareth Malone sat on my shoulder that night saying ‘see, I told you classical music was best’. Of course, it was Purcell that the youngest Scottish players approached with infectious enthusiasm, and Beethoven that stilled a Scottish crowd and overcame unseasonable weather. When the stakes are high – and this programme aims to help whole communities overcome some of the biggest social problems – is it a case of only the best – only classical music, will do?

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Later that week, I watched BBC3s Project Hackney in which Plan B, Labrinth, and Leona Lewis worked with young people who had been excluded from mainstream education. The programme finished with scenes of their performance of music they had produced themselves. The pivotal scene for me was Plan B telling the group words to the effect that ‘it’s only going to be good if it’s good, people won’t make allowances for who you are’. In the end it was good. Despite my initial suspicions of the intentions behind this project, it had integrity – my only concern is to know how committed the BBC are to ensuring it has a legacy, and that the young people are enabled to continue on this course which may just have got them back on the rails.

This week, in a Hackney Community centre, some of the 150 young people who regularly work on the Barbican and Guildhall school’s drumming project have been collaborating with young Brazilian musicians from the Pracatum school to develop new material which will be performed in their communities, and at this weekend’s Back2Black festival at Old Billingsgate market. The Pracatum school bring their own take on Samba and other Brazilian music – the Barbican project has, for over four years, been built on the premise that the young musicians build material from the sounds they relate to as young twenty first century East Londoners. Beats lifted from Grime and Hip Hop are woven into their powerful performances – and they will be a key part of this November’s major performances Unleashed which will explore their dreams and the realities of their East London. Evident in the rehearsal room this week, and sure to resonate with audiences at the weekend, are the same qualities – commitment, sharing, selflessness, dedication – that were present in Raploch a week ago, and the evidence and testimonies from people that have been part of this project over the years show substantial impacts on the individual and on the wider life of their school communities.

I’m not going to make a judgement that any of the projects I’ve talked about here are better than the others, but I finish these thoughts more confident than ever that making music together does have the power to impact communities and change individuals lives; pleased, that on this evidence, good project design, inspiring leadership and integrity are more important to the success of this area of work than the musical medium chosen, and happy to continue my genre crossing musical existence, whatever Gareth says.

What have you done today, Mervyn Day?

Writing about Jonathan’s work and the transformation of the Lee Valley in my last post reminded me of Saint Etienne’s film What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? Made in 2005, the film is set on the day following the announcement of London’s successful Olympic bid and follows the teenage Mervyn on a bike ride through the Lee Valley and the area now dominated by the Olympic Park.

With scenes and voiceovers featuring the real life characters of the area the film was a timely documentation of a landscape and community on the brink of transformation through one of the biggest developments in London’s history. Scenes which stick in my mind include one in a warehouse, which may well no longer exist, filled with the largest imaginable collection of tiles piled floor to ceiling in haphazard and frequently collapsing piles, and Mervyn being served bubble and squeak in a classic East End cafe – another rapidly dying institution. Built into the narrative are reminders of the Lee Valley’s industrial past, including the invention of plastic in Hackney Wick.

I haven’t seen the film since its premiere in 2005, during which the band played the soundtrack live (and also played their excellent album Tales from Turnpike House in the second half) but there’s a trailer on YouTube – with a tantalising hint of a DVD release this year in the comments. The film is well worth trying to seek out, and already and important historical document.

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